The RNC just got caught making secret Russia payments to the Trump Campaign

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As president, Donald Trump has pushed the limits of what is ethically permissible by the executive branch by charging the U.S. government to put him up in his family’s hotels and resorts.

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It turns out it isn’t just the government Trump is using as his personal piggy bank; he is also doing it with the Republican National Committee (RNC).

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The RNC is paying $37,000 a month to rent space for Trump’s never-ending presidential campaign in Trump Tower in New York, and they’re picking up an estimated $12,000 a month in salary expenses for VP Mike Pence’s nephew, John Pence, the campaign’s Deputy Executive Director, reports CNBC.

What the RNC is doing, as recently disclosed in a Federal Election Commission filing, apparently is technically within the limits of the law, but just about everything else related to the unusual relationship between the Republican organization and Trump fails to pass the smell test. 

Start with the timing.

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Back in September, CNN reported that the RNC was paying legal bills for Trump and his son Donald Jr. in regards to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

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The RNC at the time had already paid $230,000 to two of Trump’s lawyers from a special legal fund, and $196,000 for lawyers representing Donald Jr., who was being questioned about his June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian agents to get negative information about Trump’s opponent, Secretary Hillary Clinton.

“The party publicly defended its decision to pay Trump’s lawyers with RNC funds,” reports CNBC, “but privately, officials debated whether this was a proper use of the legal defense fund, which was originally intended to help pay for things like vote recounts.”

Shortly after that came to light, the RNC abruptly stopped covering Trump’s legal bills.

Instead, it almost simultaneously began quietly paying the rent for Trump’s campaign offices and Pence’s nephew’s salary, which since September has added up to more than $290,000.  

The payments, which were documented in monthly FEC filings, but not reported until now, are known as “coordinated expenditures.”

There are legal limits on how much a party committee can spend on “coordinated expenditures” for a presidential candidate, which is raising the question of why this money is being spent now when it may be badly needed closer to the 2020 election?

Brendan Fischer, senior counsel for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, told CNBC that “One would think the RNC could be spending their money more effectively right now on the 2018 campaign, rather than spending it to pay Trump’s rent.”

The very fact Trump has a presidential campaign already is nearly unprecedented. On the day he was inaugurated in January 2017, Trump became the first president ever to simultaneously file to create a committee to run for the same office four years later.

Fischer said it is even odder because the Trump 2020 campaign has already raised millions with fundraising and a series of rallies, so it has plenty of money on hand to pay its own rent.

In 2017, the Trump 2020 campaign and two affiliated committees raised $31 million, and as of December 31, 2017, had $22 million cash on hand.

“Committees generally don’t pay for campaign headquarters,” a former DNC official told CNBC “And this far out from 2020 makes it even stranger.”

“Did they think they needed to show loyalty to Trump by paying the rent at the building Trump owns, wondered Fischer. 

The former RNC official said it would be simple at this point for the Committee to absorb the small Trump campaign into its headquarters in Washington and avoid paying any additional rent.

“They could have a dedicated spat at the RNC,” said the former official, “of they could just join the RNC staff which would be a lot more cost efficient for the campaign.”

Since Trump became president, the RNC has been one of The Trump Organization’s best customers, so this is not the first time the committee has funneled money that way.

The preferred venue for Republican fundraisers has become Trump properties, especially the Trump International Hotel, a former U.S. post office a few blocks from the White House that the Trumps converted to a hotel in 2016.

Several lawsuits are winding their way through the federal courts, filed by those who believe Trump violated the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution by being allowed to lease the hotel from the government, and because it has become a favorite place for foreign dignitaries and lobbyist to stay who hope to influence Trump.

While some have stayed away from Trump properties because of the president and his outrageous comments, the RNC has stepped up. During the first eight months of 2017, the RNC and affiliates spent about $1.3 million at Trump properties, the Washington Post reported this past August. 

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Stephen Spaulding, a former special counsel at the FEC who is now with Common Cause, said, “It looks to me like the RNC is shuttling cash around to benefit Trump and the vice president’s family in ways that are pretty unprecedented.

Trump has been accused of being the grifter-in-chief because, more than any other modern president, he’s used his high office to benefit himself, his family and the private company he refused to sell or put into a blind trust when he was elected like every other president before him.

It is easy to imagine that when it became embarrassing for the RNC to be paying Trump’s legal bills, a deal was cooked up to pay his campaign expenses instead, without any of the backroom schemes ever becoming public knowledge. 

It is not a shock that the RNC is as borderline corrupt as Trump, but it is a sad commentary about the state of American politics, which under Trump has descended into the sewer.

Benjamin Locke

Benjamin Locke is a retired college professor with an undergraduate degree in Industrial Labor and Relations from Cornell University and an MBA from the European School of Management.

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